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Need advice on a mediocre reference letter from a well-known professor in my field


hkcool

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The professor in question is European, but very, very well-known in the subfield I'm looking to do research in in grad school. He is one of the top researchers in this field.

Last summer, I received a fellowship from my university to do research abroad, and was fortunate enough to have him as my advisor (I had a contact with him from my research advisor in my home university). I had a fantastic experience with him, and I think he was pleased with my work, based on his feedback.

He has written me a reference letter once before for a fellowship, and asked me to check over the letter for accuracy before he sent it in. The letter did say great things about me, but it was very short as well, and if I had read that letter on a committee, I don't think I would have a very complete picture of myself as a researcher. In retrospect, I think part of the 'problem' is that reference letters are not perhaps not emphasized at much in his country. From talking to his students during my time there, this was my impression anyway. 

I'm a bit nervous now, and probably should have mentioned to him from the start that reference letters are possibly the most important part of my application. He knows generally of course that the letter should speak to my capacity to do research in a graduate environment and my past research efforts, but I did send him a gentle email today letting him know that it's the most important aspect of my application. He's one of the kindest professors I have ever interacted with, and my gut feeling here is that he really just might be unaware of the importance of the letter.

For some of my top schools, there are faculty that have either collaborated with him before or know him personally, and some of them I'm pretty sure are on the graduate committee. Even with a short letter from him, I feel like the fact that he wrote highly of my research combined with his name is helpful. But at other schools, it's just as likely no one on the committee is in this subfield and isn't familiar with him, which I think is when the letter might hurt me (for example, in his past fellowship letter, he didn't have any lines about his background or position).

If you can't tell, my stress levels about the application process are through the roof right now! So probably everything I've just written is just me reading way, way, way too much into things. Just wonder if anyone has been in a similar position, or can recommend if there's anything in particular I can tell this professor that might help?

 

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You'll have other letters supporting aspects of your application that he might not? He knows you and agrees to write you a strong letter, and his name carries weight? Seems like an obvious person to ask for a letter from. I know that the culture in Europe is different than in the States with regard to how effusive the letter is, but that's a well-known fact that the adcom will know as well. I can't imagine that this uber-famous professor has never placed other students in US programs -- meaning that he's written letters of recommendation that at the very least didn't impede people's chances, and in all likelihood did more than that. Which is to say, I doubt that he's unaware of how important letters are. LORs are ubiquitous in all stages of an academic's career -- for grad school, postdocs, jobs, grants, fellowships, tenure, promotion to full prof -- and I assure you that he's written hundreds of them. Just ask him like you would anyone else ('would you be able to write a strong letter in support of my application?'), and don't worry about things you can't control. 

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I'm in France and, yeah, the European way is humble and reserved. I have excellent letters (but short), and I am taken aback by the warm words because I was expecting something much more neutral.

 

I spoke with an gradadm office about this (before I received the letters) and she told me the committee probably knows how other countries work. If you feel the letter really disserves you, you might want to speak about it with the prof. But honestly, it's probably just a cultural thing!

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On 12/1/2016 at 3:15 AM, fuzzylogician said:

You'll have other letters supporting aspects of your application that he might not? He knows you and agrees to write you a strong letter, and his name carries weight? Seems like an obvious person to ask for a letter from. I know that the culture in Europe is different than in the States with regard to how effusive the letter is, but that's a well-known fact that the adcom will know as well. I can't imagine that this uber-famous professor has never placed other students in US programs -- meaning that he's written letters of recommendation that at the very least didn't impede people's chances, and in all likelihood did more than that. Which is to say, I doubt that he's unaware of how important letters are. LORs are ubiquitous in all stages of an academic's career -- for grad school, postdocs, jobs, grants, fellowships, tenure, promotion to full prof -- and I assure you that he's written hundreds of them. Just ask him like you would anyone else ('would you be able to write a strong letter in support of my application?'), and don't worry about things you can't control. 

Yup, I've since calmed down about this and I'm sure it will be fine. Now the issue is actually getting him to submit it! My two other LORs (one of whom was my research advisor for 2 years in undergrad) already submitted their letters. My first app had a soft deadline of Dec 1 even though it's not officially due until January. But my first hard deadline is Dec 6.

I know that schools give leeway for LORs to come in late, I'm just worried because my last contact with him was 2 weeks ago when he told me he'd do as best he could on my letters. I've sent a couple of emails over the last week to him and his secretary to remind them of the deadlines, but no response...

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Where are you from? 

Suggest you two get together so you can help him out with the submissions. He might be intimidated and procrastinating taking care of ya. 

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7 hours ago, Yanaka said:

Where are you from? 

Suggest you two get together so you can help him out with the submissions. He might be intimidated and procrastinating taking care of ya. 

I'm from the U.S. so I can't just show up to his office or call him.

He has written me a LOR for a fellowship before (as I said), and was able to get that one in on time well before the strict deadline, but this time, I haven't heard from him nor his secretary in a while. I'll try emailing them again next week I guess. Last resort, I can email one of his students I know, who asked him about writing the letters a couple of months ago when I hadn't even heard back from him about the initial request

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Sorry I meant to ask where you are now. My profs don't have offices, we decided together when and where to meet so I could assist them. Anyway-- i was suggesting you send him yet another email and maybe he will answer if you suggest you meet and do the stuff together?

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